An image representing the metaverse with computer generated hills, a stone plinth in the centre and a palm tree

Contrary to rumour, the ‘metaverse’ is thriving

The metaverse has taken one hell of a beating, but it’s transforming categories and brands. Perhaps we should call it something else, says Mat Day, Gaming Strategy Director at PLAY.

RIP. It failed. Scrap it, start over. Pivot to AI instead. The death knell for the metaverse has been rung by the tech and marketing press with characteristic glee.

It seems like only a few months ago it was being heralded as the next big thing, with a growth trajectory that would see it transform not just the digital landscape but also huge sectors such as retail, fashion, travel and education.

Except it wasn’t even a few months ago, it was just one. That’s when McKinsey posited that the travel industry would see potential rewards of $20bn driven by metaverse platforms. Only weeks before, Accenture had predicted the industry would have a value of $1tr in three years’ time.

Clearly, both missed the memo that this technology was already dead in the water. Someone who also missed the memo was Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, creators of Fortnite. Or rather, he reacted to it with a knowing tweet that someone had better inform the 600,000,000 users of his and other huge metaverse platforms.

Others who haven’t noticed include Apple, which has just revealed it’s long-awaited mixed reality headset complete with a suite of social features, and Roblox, which passed the 60m DAU mark in Q1 23. If the whole metaverse project is dead, it seems to be enjoying some posthumous successes.

Three image banner from left to right - screen with roblox, person wearing a headset, fortnite live event

The metaverse is not Meta

A big part of the disconnect is Meta. It’s no secret that the colossal, name-changing bet it has made on its version of the metaverse concept and the eye-watering sums of money it has invested in VR products ($10bn and counting) has yet to translate to concrete business benefits.

This, coupled with Mark Zuckerburg’s comments about the investment Meta is making in generative AI, is what is driving the current wave of doom mongering. He has since gone on to restate the company’s commitment to the metaverse, but many are seeing it as a signal they are moving on.

The truth is that ‘The Metaverse’ is a much broader concept than Meta’s Horizon Worlds. It is a collection of technologies, platforms and good old-fashioned videogames that are currently in a state of rapid evolution, each building on top of each other and laying the foundations for even more immersive and powerful platforms of tomorrow.

It’s time to start thinking longer-term about immersive, shared virtual experiences. The generation after Gen Alpha will probably never have heard of the term ‘metaverse’. If they have, it will sound as quaint and antiquated as calling the internet ‘cyberspace’.

Scepticism about the ‘next big thing’ is both healthy and necessary. What are billed as transformative technologies can sometimes be fads that never really take off – 3D TV anyone? It is not until some crucial components have fallen into place that even the most-hyped tech can leap into mass adoption.

QR codes, for example, have been on a zig-zag journey from initial fanfare to obscurity and ridicule, and now to a kind of invisible ubiquity, all driven by the simple fact that people both want to use them and have the means to do so.

It’s that behavioural shift that marketeers should really pay attention to. All exciting new technologies should be viewed through a consumer-focused lens to both temper expectations and fine-tune execution.

So it is with ‘The Metaverse’.The specific tech matters much less than the shift towards people spending more time playing, socialising and consuming content in a shared virtual space. This is a trend that is undeniable, particularly when talking about younger audiences. Brands that have entered these spaces and added value to the experience have enjoyed huge success – just ask the 21m visitors to Niketown, or the 500k players of Gillette’s custom Fortnite map.

Detractors will say that these platforms are not ‘The Metaverse’, they are videogames. I would completely agree. The term ‘metaverse’ was always a bit of a misnomer, implying a single unified space when describing this behavioural trend towards a more immersive virtual presence. Apple themselves are unsurprisingly not using the term, instead talking more functionally about ‘Spatial Computing’. When looking at how brands can activate in the space it’s often better to be specific about whether it’s game integrations, digital collectibles, or a mixed reality experience, as ‘metaverse’ executions will likely take one or more of these forms.

Whatever disagreements there may be about terminology, what can be agreed on is the emergence of a different way for people to interact with digital content – one that’s more immersive, playful and inherently social – which is independent of the fortunes or failures of a single platform or technology. It’s a trend that may be accelerated from more widespread adoption of VR – or a standard of digital commerce that may or may not be fungible – but it will not live or die by such successes or setbacks.

Fundamentally, it is a trend that these technologies will adapt to, not the other way around. That’s why it’s behaviours, not buzzwords, that marketers should focus on to break through.